excerpt of Virtual Reality artwork
a love letter to the Nightingale, 2023

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The Virtual Architecture of Empathy

Research Essay: Creative and Performance Leadership Fellowship
Forrest Research Foundation, University of Western Australia

By Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson

The Virtual Architecture of Empathy

The new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals. – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

In The Virtual Architecture of Empathy, with the Creative and Performance Leadership Fellowship (2022) of the Forrest Research Foundation, I have been researching how emotional immersion in a diverse range of poetic mediums, can create empathy, prioritising the importance of well-being, creative art therapy, ethical care, communal and specialist consultation. Trauma, especially within cultural perspectives is difficult to navigate without the right support networks. For the past several years of my research, I have heavily engaged in my own community’s storytelling; learning, absorbing, and witnessing the trauma held within following the 1979 Revolution in Iran. Many families, children, people were displaced, and persecuted – or executed for their religious beliefs. My family were the ‘lucky’ ones to have escaped, survived, and resettled in Boorloo. When hearing these stories, I noticed the difficulty of creating safe passages to re-express these transformative experiences. This is where creative art therapy comes in as a significant spiritual and cognitive process to enable internal understanding and in turn, healing. From my eighteen months of research, fieldwork, and mentorship I generated the final iteration of my creative publication, a first-person point of view visual poem of my own dis/connection to ‘home’, inviting viewers to witness feelings of loss, grief, powerlessness, and renewed hope of the displaced experience through magical realism and Virtual Reality (VR) technology. This new work, titled a love letter to the Nightingale, will be presented at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts for WA Games Week (XR Festival) for Immerse Australia, 19–24 September 2023.

The refugee experience is a foreign concept for the majority of Australian society, however, it is an experience that 103 million people endured last year (UN Refugee Agency, 2022). As humans, we are drawn to narratives as a means of connection across social and cultural barriers. Therefore, storytelling is a powerful way to invoke empathy and thus bridge the gap between refugee communities and the wider public. The sharing of stories plays an essential role in healing and mental well-being in response to traumatic contexts as used in art therapy. VR technology offers new ways of story experiencing that allow a full immersion in an ‘alternative’ world, effectively bringing to life the experience of ‘seeing through the eyes of another’. This creative project employs VR as a storytelling device to invoke empathy (Girija, Kaimal, 2019), building sustainable and lasting cross-cultural and spiritual relationships in an increasingly multicultural society.

During my residency with St. Mary’s Outreach Service, as part of SPACED, Know Thy Neighbour #3 in partnership with Victoria Park Community Centre, I made written reflections in response, surmising a reflective poem, a first unearthing to the experience of home/less/ness. This became parallel to my own conflicted sense of identity; familiar and alienating, both at home and far away, in place and language. Interpreting past trauma found in displacement and the transference of these ‘inherited stories’ by my family (and by extension, my community) I offered a lens to the intergenerational and universal experience of mourning, loss, love, nostalgia and placelessness. Coming into this space in a spirit of absorbing, feeling, and witnessing exchanges of nurture in relation to home and place, I undertook local fieldwork exploring the urban and social identity of Victoria Park. Prioritising the safety and privacy of the people I engaged with, the development of the artwork became a complex process of intersubjective responses as used in creative art therapy (Flame, Cara, 2022). Through poetic verbatim and abstraction, the purpose of the artwork became about bringing an awareness surrounding the different states of home – emotionally and geographically – in response to those on the edges of crisis (and to alleviate the emotional symptoms of hardship felt by vulnerable communities through art-making strategies).

In the following months of my fellowship, I connected with local residents of Victoria Park, taking a further step into the practice of ‘wayfinding’ through creative art therapy, curating a living map of home, objects, gestures, sounds and place with the residents. Interplaying poetic-realism cinema and magical realism aesthetics, the objects, and gestures themselves harboured important meanings of home; it’s memory and absence. Each object is inherited, found and re-purposed. Memoirs of home emerge and pass. It brought me to the next question: how can we generate an experience that creates both awe and intimacy – two seemingly contradicting states of being? In my first iteration, edges of place (2022), which was jointly awarded the Ellen José Art Award, I navigated this contemplative experience of belonging. Within these virtual artworks generated (fieldwork undertaken at the 360 projection mapping workshop with Map MIMA and illuminArt, 2022), I found curating a feeling of reverence allowed the ‘awe’ and ‘intimacy’ to marry.

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, edges of place, 2022, 25:00min with sound, image courtesy of Bayside Gallery and the Artist, photo: Mark Ashkanasy

How is home ever-evolving? Is home a feeling? I reflected on my own position as someone who cannot safely visit my mother’s homeland, to living and growing up in Boorloo, Whadjuk Noongar Boodjar. I act as a witness to my own familial experience; my mother, uncle, and grandparents persecuted for their Bahá’í beliefs, during the 1979 Iranian revolution (researched through a second iterative work, ‘Golden Dreams’ (2023)exhibited at the Perth Centre of Photography). What materialized was that the vulnerability and risk became part of the visualization of The Virtual Architecture’s of Empathy.

When developing the storyline architecture of the VR world, the most authentic stories that hold agency are the personal accounts of the author/maker (Fardinpour, Ali, 2023). Thus, in an act of robust vulnerability, I set another step within this investigation of home – in exploring my own emotional and personal account of trauma, loneliness, and anxiety.

a love letter to the Nightingale is a significant marker to my ‘self-portrait’ – an ode to the lived trauma and dedication to the eighteen months of absorbing, witnessing, and carrying the internal landscapes of loss, grief, hopelessness, and love. The virtual architecture magnifies my relationship with estrangement and care whilst shifting in-between ‘the push and pull’, inviting viewers to explore how feminine approaches (nurture, vulnerability, and empathy) can be harnessed to mediate historical and contemporary trauma. 

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, our home, 2023, set of 5 (Ed. of 2).  
Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson with Khashayar Salmanzadeh, Majnūn sifting through the Dust looking for his Beloved, Lāyli, 2023, 1138 x 640, aluminium with matte laminate, Ed. of 3 + AP

In terms of methodology, interconnecting live theatre with film-poetry, I creatively built a virtual world, seeking to document, as a witness, cultural stories that transcend beyond a locality into the human condition in order to understand the significant trajectory of the role of the viewer as a witness (Özgen, Erkan, 2018) within virtual architectures. Pushing the passive audience to active agents/witnesses. The architecture of the virtual and physical embodies an emotional representation of the stories conveyed, with the active participant/witness immersed in the emotional offering of the first unearthing of ‘home’. A meditative experience as it ‘comes and goes in waves’.

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, Anvár [Stage 2], 2023, 30:00min, panoramic installation with sound, the Digital Tower, Yagan Square, Boorloo WA, image courtesy of Next Wave and the artist, photo: Aaron Claringbold

The relationship with the virtual world built by personal, local and global stories, enabled an emotional bond thus familiarising the unknown and allowing for an emotional transformation – the VR artwork offers the witness to sit, breathe and ritualise the grit and ardour of patience in search of understanding (as researched in my third iteration, Anvár (2023) displayed on the Digital Tower, Yagan Square).  Poetically, I draw spiritual inspiration and gravity towards the poem by Rumi, titled Only Breath,

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim,
not Hindu, Buddhist, sufi, or zen.
Not any religion or cultural system.
I am not from the East or the West,
not out of the ocean or up from the ground,
not natural or ethereal, nor composed of elements at all.
I do not exist,
I am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story.
My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless.
Neither body or soul. I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one
and that one call to and know, first, last, outer, inner,
only that breath breathing human being.

The VR artwork becomes about my connection to love – mystically (inspired by Persian lore) and spiritually, a mirror to the trauma felt by the wider body,

“Is your body a shrine? ………………… [redacted]”

It draws further spiritual connection to the Bahá’í Prayers quote, The Hidden Words by Bahá’u’lláh, inspiring the song written and composed by Alia Golestani for the Bahá’í World Conference (2022),

O SON OF MAN! For everything there is a sign. The sign of love is fortitude under My decree and patience under My trials.

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, ‘a love letter to the Nightingale’, 2023, VR, 26:39min 8k with sound
Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, ‘a Golden Dream, the steed of this Valley is pain’, 2023, 1200 x 640, diasec, Ed. of 2 + AP

Acknowledgements

The research and development of the artwork were made on the lands of the Whadjuk people of the Nyoongar nation, as the traditional owners of Boorloo. I, the artist, acknowledge I create on their land. I acknowledge and respect the living culture, and heritage of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the essential role they hold in storytelling, in community and in our understanding of nature, spirit and connection.

References

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Refugee Statistics. UNHCR, 2022. www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/.

Kaimal, Girija & Carroll-Haskins, Katrina & Berberian, Marygrace & Dougherty, Abby & Carlton, Natalie & Ramakrishnan, Arun. Virtual Reality in Art Therapy: A Pilot Qualitative Study of the Novel Medium and Implications for Practice. Art Therapy, 2019. 10.1080/07421656.2019.1659662.

Özgen, Erkan, & Rik, Adriaans. Giving Voices: Erkan Özgen. Sternberg press, 2018.

Credits

Virtual Architecture of Empathy by Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, with the Early-Career Creative and Performance Leadership Fellowship Forrest Research Foundation & School of Design, University of Western Australia, 2022-23. Dedicated to my home, Christian Haakansson.

Research

Industry Collaborator: Cara Flame – Creative Arts Therapist

Academic Collaborator: Dr. Ionat Zurr

Virtual Reality (VR) Collaborator: Natalie Marinho – Immerse Australia

VR Research Associate: Dr Ali Fardinpour

Research/Fellowship Consultant: Dr Andea Rassell & Jo Pollit

Academic Support: Sarah Douglas, Reegan Jackson and Kate Hislop

Community Collaboration: Araan Kousari, Ranin Kousari

Cultural Consultant: Manijeh Heshmat

Thank you to Dr Nicola Forrest, Dr Andrew Forrest, Director of the Forrest Research Foundation Professor James Arvanitakis, Alix Beattie, Christian Haakansson, Virginia Mosk, Professor Paul Johnson, Fellowship panel of ’22, Professor Robyn Owens, Professor Tim Colmer, Dr. Iain Grandage, Anna Reece, Margrete Helgeby-Chaney, Rochelle Gunn and Forrest Research Foundation scholars-cohort, for supporting the research.

Thank you to Bayside Art Gallery, Joanna Bosse, MAP mima Lake Macquarie Art Gallery, Miranda Johnson, PICA x Hackathon with Immerse Australia and Frame Labs VR, Raewyn Hill, Co3 Dance Contemporary, Haneen Martin, Next Wave, Annie Huang, Daley Rangi, Danyol Aghaei, and the Institute of Global Prosperity.

VR Artwork: a love letter to the Nightingale

VR Director/Storyteller: Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson

VR Technical Expert/Mentor: Mahmudul Raz

VR Colourist, Editor, Animations: Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson

VR Dramaturgy: Jay Emmanual

VFX Artist: Jarrad Russell

Song Artist for Nightingale Melody: Alia Golestani

Narrator: Elisha Rahimi

Sound Producer: Ashkaan Hadi

VR Soundscape: Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson

VR Graphic Artist: Trisha Soni

Dramaturgy for Soundscape: Rebecca Riggs-Bennett

Performers: Asha Kiani and Vafa Kiani

Dramaturgy for Choreography: Asha Kiani

Director of Photography: Elliott Nieves

Camera Assist: David Attwell

Set location: Chris Huzzards Studios

Set Design, Costume: Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson

Runners: Eckart Haakansson & Christian Haakansson

Host Partner Liaison: Miranda Johnson, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts

Thank you to Minderoo Foundation, Christine Tomas, Perth Centre of Photography, Encounter Theatre, Performing Lines WA, and Dr. Andrea Rassell’s & Dr. Cassandra Tytler’s Moving Image Lab Perth for supporting the development of the artwork.

Community

Curator Collaborators, Consultancy: Mayma Awaida (SPACED) & Soula Veyradier (SPACED)

Community Partner, Consultancy: Julianne Mackay (Victoria Park Community Centre) & Kerri Jeffries (Victoria Park Community Centre)

Community Collaborator: Medhanie Ghebregziabher,

Ethics Consultant: St. Mary’s Outreach Service

Translator: Arjang Pirmorady

Supported By: SPACED, Know Thy Neighbour #3 2022 with partner, Victoria Park Community Centre.

List of Creative Publications and Exhibitions

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, a love letter to the Nightingale, 2023. Exhibition at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. A Partner event with Immerse Australia, WA Games Week XR Festival. University of Western Australia, School of Design.

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, Golden Dreams, 2023. Major exhibition at Perth Centre of Photography.

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, Golden Dreams, 2023. Photographic book publication.

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, Anvár, 2023 exhibited at the Digital Tower, Yagan Square. Presented for 2022 Kickstart Artist WA Lead with Next Wave and the DLGSC.

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, edges of place, 2022. Exhibited at Bayside Art Gallery, Perth Centre of Photography & Cullity Gallery for Know Thy Neighbour #3, and Golden Dreams.

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, our home, 2023. Exhibited at CANVAS Collective for the Town of Victoria Park Art Season 2022.

Early-Career Creative and Performance Leadership Fellowship

Part of the Forrest Fellowship and Scholarship schemes, these awards seek to harness the imaginative, creative, embodied and practical skills of creative/performing arts practitioners in order to generate high-impact outcomes and research initiatives that will result in social, cultural and health benefits to the wider community. The Forrest Foundation is particularly interested in enhancing the quality and reputation of the Western Australian performing arts sector.

Rather than focus on individual performance skill development, this award emphasizes the importance of leadership through community endeavour via the application of creative/performing arts initiatives through research inquiry, as a means of enhancing social cohesion, health and wellbeing, education, and environmental sustainability. However, it is expected that awardees will further develop and enhance their research skills in the planned program of work. For further information on the Early-Career Creative and Performance Leadership Fellowship visit Forrest Research.